Posted 6/21/13 – There must be something in the water there at the British Home in Sierra Madre. Or maybe it’s the excellent care they take of their residents, but at the moment, there are two centenarians in residence, both of them active and mobile. And one of them, Sophie (Koenig) Hules, celebrated her 104th birthday last Saturday, with family and friends coming from as far away as North Carolina to be with her.
Sophie Koenig was born in Yugoslavia on June 14, 1909. Her parents had traveled from their home in New York for a family gathering, but found themselves unable to return to the United States due to a combination of civil unrest, military conflict, and ultimately, the onset of WWI.
It wasn’t until 1920, at the age of eleven, that Sophie was able to return to the U.S., which she and her family did aboard a steam ship originally built in 1912, named The Presidente Wilson, after Woodrow Wilson, the American president during WWI. Her father Josef, mother Gertrude, sisters Rose and Louise, and two brothers, Josef and William left the farm they lived on to sail on the Presidente Wilson’s first trip to America after the war. They re-entered the U.S. like millions of immigrants, through Ellis Island, ultimately settling in Cleveland, Ohio.
Sophie and her younger sister by four years, Louise, also born on June 14th, attended school together to learn English, and after six years of schooling, Sophie got a job, working as a Long Distance telephone operator. Yes, young’uns, phone calls used to be categorized by the distance between the two parties talking. Sophie met a florist seven years her senior named James Hules, and six days shy of her 20th birthday, the couple were married. Nine years later, they set off for California, where Sophie worked the night shift as an operator for Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Company. James found work during WWII working for the government as a painting contractor, painting black out windows to prevent the enemy from seeing the lights in the houses, should they attack from the air.
Sophie and Jim bought a house in South Pasadena, and raised three children there, Carol, Jim and Susan. All three children were in attendance Saturday to celebrate with
her. Her siblings have all passed away, but her nephew Will was able to be there. Sophie also has five grandchildren, six grandchildren and a great, great grandchild, several of who were also there to celebrate with her on Saturday.
Sophie continued to work as a telephone operator, first taking the Red Line to work, eventually learning to drive herself to work. She also enjoyed driving to the beach, and regularly spent her vacation at Balboa Island or on Catalina. Last year, a group from the British Home took a day trip to Balboa, and Sophie was thrilled at the memories it brought back for her. She retired from the phone company in 1966, (yes, she’s been retired nearly 50 years), though she continued to drive until the age of 94!
After retiring, Sophie became active in Senior Citizen’s groups, and did a lot of traveling. Jim eventually became ill, and Sophie tended to his needs until his passing in 1983. She continued to travel, including trips to Hawaii, Paris, and the South of France. She lived in the house she and Jim had shared in South Pasadena, tending to their gardens, until after the age of 100, but she moved into the British Home a couple years back. Today, she still gets up and sweeps the sidewalk and patio area around her “unit” and looks back on a life well-lived.
With dozens of friends and relatives on hand Saturday to enjoy a breakfast that featured waffles, eggs benedict, fruit and much more, Sophie had a smile on her face throughout the celebration. It’s been a tradition each year on her birthday for Sophie to tell British Home administrator Marlene Rainen “See you next year!” I’ll look forward to seeing you next year, Sophie, as we celebrate 105! Happy birthday! (There’s a photo gallery below the video, click to enlarge).